THE DISPUTE OVER whether it is appropriate, in public, to say ''Happy Holidays" instead of ''Merry Christmas" puts me in mind of Cardinal Richard Cushing. He was my boss when I was Catholic Chaplain at Boston University, and I loved him. In the early 1950s, Cushing forced one of the great changes in Catholic theology by excommunicating Father Leonard Feeney for preaching on Boston Common that ''there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church." As is true of today's exclusivist claims for a Christian meaning of ''the holidays," there was an undercurrent of antisemitism in Feeney's exclusivist claim for Catholicism. An inch below all Christian triumphalism is special contempt for Jews who reject the idea that Jesus is the saving Messiah. Robust assertions of the one meaning of the winter celebration are a version of the claim that there is only one way to God. Jews may not accept that, but how dare they forbid the dominant Christian culture from celebrating its dominance.
What made Cushing's excommunication of Feeney astounding was that Feeney's line had been official Church teaching for most of a thousand years: No salvation outside the Church. Feeney confidently appealed to Rome, forcing the Vatican to take a position on the question. When the Vatican supported Cushing and upheld the excommunication of Feeney, the long-held doctrine of Catholic exclusivism was overturned.
Why was Cardinal Cushing the one to force this change? Cushing's sister Dolly, an MTA toll taker, was married to Dick Pearlstein, who, with his father Louis, ran the haberdashery that was on the way to being Boston's best men's store, which it remains. Cardinal Cushing was often in the Pearlstein home, and he had ample occasion to experience his brother-in-law's innate goodness. There came to be no question for Cushing as to whether his sister's beloved husband was beloved of God. That Dick Pearlstein was Jewish -- a ''non-Catholic" -- ceased to have decisive meaning, and Cushing began to take Feeney's ''orthodox" preaching as an insult to his own family. An abstract principle of theology was upended by the sort of cross-group interaction that had become common in America.
There are religious reactionaries in the world who are suspicious of America precisely because of the religious and cultural elbow-rubbing that occurs in neighborhoods and even families. Upholding the conscience of each individual means refusing to let a particular appeal to conscience dominate public space. But critics can see in such protected plurality of doctrine the top edge of the slippery slope toward ''relativism." One need not share that worry to acknowledge that when people of differing beliefs begin to treat each other with full respect, an elbow-rubbing of the mind always follows.
To encounter another approach to the great questions of transcendence is inevitably to rethink one's own approach. Competing truth claims can yield when emphasis shifts from the claim itself to the idea of truth behind it. The question, ''Is there one way to heaven?" can become the question, ''What is 'heaven' anyway?" Soon enough, believers can recognize that the truth of their own tradition does not depend on the falsehood of someone else's. The next thing you know, as in Cushing's encounter with the Pearlsteins, basic doctrines of one's own tradition may go out the window.
The move in recent years to ''relativize" the Christian character of America's winter holiday, making room not only for ancient Jewish observance of Hanukkah and recently invented African-American celebration of Kwanza, but also for open acknowledgement of the prehistoric Solstice origins of the entire enterprise -- all of this is the calendar's version of the neighbor-respecting change that Cardinal Cushing initiated within Catholicism. As was true in that most absolute of religions, the result of such repudiation of claims to supremacy is not the mindless watering-down -- Jesus morphing into Rudolph -- of which reactionaries warn, but a renewed embrace of one's own deepest convictions.
As a Christian whose faith is braced by American pluralism, I recognize in the derided word ''holidays" a welcome signal of respect for everyone. The word means holy. How easy, therefore, to imagine it from Cardinal Cushing, who showed that holiness means respect. Happy Holidays.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.